refugees

1. This is not a post about the facts of the safety or economic ramifications of admitting refugees into the US.

2. This is not a post critiquing the process by which refugees might gain legal entry.

3. This is not a post about politics. There are no heartless Republicans or naive Democrats in this post.

4. This is not a post about tugging on your heartstrings to get you to donate money to refugee aid.

What is this post, then? I'm still not sure. I'm not an expert in anything except navel-gazing. I'm not a politician or a doctor or an aid worker. 

Here's what I know.

When Chicken was born, we were told to prepare to transfer to the NICU because he probably had an infection - pneumonia, sepsis, Group B strep - the chest x-rays both came back clear but he'd popped a fever at 2 days old and now all we could do was wait for the lab to process the bloodwork.

In the meantime, we were educated on what to look for. A well-meaning nurse slid a pen across my hospital bed tray. "You'll want to write this down." Blue lips, sucking in his belly under his ribs in a desperate attempt to breathe, bloody phlegm? Hit the call button until someone comes.

So let me get this straight... you're saying I SHOULD hit the call button when my 2-day-old son turns blue and coughs up bloody mucus? Thanks. Good tip. No, you're right, I DID need to write that down. Y'all should probably get some laminated signs made. Just, you know, a suggestion. "Baby blue? Call extension 2!" Or whatever. They're your signs. 

The specter of danger loomed over Chicken's round, pink, wiggling body until we could see nothing but the absence of symptoms. We felt his real, warm weight in our arms, watched his lips working on the bottle as he gulped, audibly, lustily, the supplemental formula that "might save his life," and thought, "he isn't sick... yet," when we should have been thinking, "he is working that bottle like a boss." 

wait!
is he blue?
no?
okay.
i'll keep waiting.
The tests all came back negative. The nurse who'd spoken to us about bloody phlegm slipped her pen into her chest pocket, shrugged, and said, "I guess he's fine! Congratulations! Look at that big, beautiful, healthy boy."

We took him home (where he never turned blue) and I expected to blow the tight bands of fear from my chest with my first deep breath of home. 

that is not what happened
as you might be able to tell
from my level of freshness
in this picture
lookin strong katie
lookin real strong

Of course, the threat remained. I've accepted that as long as I have a living child, the specter of danger will endure. Like a shadow, it changes shape and size. Sometimes it is enormous, darkening the room. On bright days it hides beneath my feet, patient. It's got time. And it's got me wrapped around its black little finger. To this day, when Chicken plays house with Buster, and Chicken plays Mommy, the first thing he always says to the baby is "Be careful! That's dangerous!"

When I first read about the Syrian refugees sailing inflatable boats to Greece to seek safety for themselves and their families, I felt the shadows grow long. 

The news coverage has been both rending and ugly - we don't spend a lot of time talking about regular citizen Syrians on the news, and we seem to be unsure of how to speak about people who are Muslim, foreign, and moving in large numbers into other countries. People have said some stupid shit. People seem to have forgotten that under all the window dressing the Syrian refugees are just guys, just plumbers and teachers, just a lady who prefers coffee to tea, just a kid who doesn't actually like soccer and spends his time climbing trees instead, just a mom with a baby who's teething. Yep, Syrian kids teethe. That story, plus holiday travel tips and tricks, coming up at 11!

But seriously, I can't write about how it feels to see pictures of people in life jackets, or regular moms and dads, not action heroes, some paunchy, some scrawny, running with their children in their arms - heavy children, children too old to be carried, really. The closest I can come is this: You know when you get hurt, really hurt? When you look down at a broken wrist or an angry scrape, and the hurt is too new to even feel? Fluid rushes to the wound and you watch, numbly, as your hurt swells, and if your eyes were closed you wouldn't even be able to point to the place where you're bleeding. I feel like that, badly hurt all the way into silence.  

It's devastating, the scale of displacement, the depth of fear and chaos, the sudden weight of every day's necessary labor for people who have done nothing to deserve this lot, for the kids who are quiet, confused, and heartbreakingly, not surprised.

Of course, like everything that breaks my heart, it comes back to my children.

Of course it does.

I would carry them anywhere to keep them safe and I would push dirt over their bodies to keep them warm while they slept. I'm nothing special. I'm not about to pin a Mockingjay on my sweatshirt. I'm just a mom whose baby is teething.

I suppose I'm exactly the person that such coverage is trying to activate. Women, children, crying, sleeping, empty water buckets, reaching hands. I've had to turn it off so I can sleep.

I continue to refuse the urge to warm myself from the gentle glow of an entire nation burning. It's easy to come away from these stories with a satisying sense of gratitude.

"Wow, I'm so lucky to have a floor in my house." 
"Thank God we have water."
"Our problems are nothing, really - sure, we have car payments. But we don't have to wade into a mosh pit and compete to catch the day's dinner, donated bread, tossed to us from gloved hands."

It's terribly insulting, horribly cold, to turn these people into the ultimate symbol of "there but for the grace of God go I." I can't stand the idea of using them to feel better about where I am. I can't imagine having that conversation: "Wow, Ahmed. Thank you for sharing your story. You are a remarkable man, and your family is lucky to have you. Also, just being here, with you, it makes me feel, like, so much better about the outstanding balance on my Macy's card. Wow. Like... weight? Lifted! So, good luck man. Take care." Nobody would say that. But that's how it feels, to just watch from a distance, shudder, and retire to your quarters, sinking extra-deeply into the sofa, proud of yourself for remembering to be grateful.

I do feel blessed, but I feel unworthy of the blessing. Just as people born into a land soaked in blood have done nothing to earn that sentence, so I have done nothing in to earn my life's total absence of hunger, its near-absence of violence. I didn't earn the luxury of knowing death only through novels and the quiet, comfortable administration of hospice care. 

They told me my son could be sick; I waited up to watch him breathe. I felt terror. He was fine.

They took a picture of a young boy in gray and orange sneakers, asleep, waiting in line for water; it isn't fair, I thought, watching Chicken wash his hands. I snapped the tap off while he lathered. He whined, "but I waaaaanted it oooooon." I started to say, "I saw a picture of a boy today..."

I'm not sure it's my job to acclimate him to the unfairness of life. When I see the sleeping boy, waiting for water, it's Chicken's innocent expectation for eternal water as much as the boy's thirst that breaks my heart.

I'm keenly aware of my state- this personal grief is not a healthy and sustainable awareness of the world. There is a stage after this one in which I will decide that my guilt serves no one, and is just as selfish and misguided as the faux-humble self-congratulation that I find so ugly.

I don't have a wrap-up. I have no idea what else to say. I'm just going to revisit something that Chicken said when my mom sent him a postcard of the Statue of Liberty.




Chicken: Who's that lady?

Me: That's the Statue of Liberty.

Chicken: Why does she have a light?

Me: So people who are looking for a place to live know they are welcome.

Chicken: Why are they looking for a place to live?

Me: They had to leave their old homes because it wasn't safe for them, or because they were having a really hard time, and they came here to try to have a better life. And when they get here, after sailing for a long time, they see that light and know that they're home.

Chicken: Like when friends come over to our house? When they're havin a hard time? And we leave the door open for them? And when they knock? We say hi, come on in, we're so glad you're here? And do you want a snack?

Me: Yes baby. Just like that. 

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